His face ringed by perspiration, Malcolm McDuffie pauses from removing root knots on an unusually warm February day in west Atlanta.
Nearby, smoke rises from a pile of brush, wood and dead branches McDuffie, 68, and another volunteer have cleared at Utoy Cemetery.
Grave stone and markers in the city’s oldest burial ground provided witness to their toil in a tree-covered plot that a small, but dedicated, group is trying to return from neglect.
“We can make it a beautiful place,” says the website of the Utoy Cemetery Association, which contends the first burial dates to 1816, when this land was on the edge of Creek Indian settlements. White missionaries and settlers moved onto land that once belonged to an Indian village at Utoy.
McDuffie, who grew up in nearby East Point and now lives in Lilburn, Ga., guides a visitor through the cemetery, which holds the bones of between 25 and 35 Confederate soldiers who died at the Battle of Utoy Creek Aug. 5-7, 1864, during the Atlanta Campaign.
Utoy Cemetery also has the graves of Atlanta’s first physician, Joshua Gilbert, who had ties to the area and treated the wounded during the battle. By the 1820s, Gilbert’s family had purchased land lots in what once was Native American land. The doctor died at age 73 in 1889.
The Confederate defenders established a hospital at Utoy Church (also known as Utoy Baptist and Utoy Primitive Baptist), behind the battlefield.
McDuffie’s great-great-great-aunt, Sally Hendon, served as Gilbert’s nurse and also is buried at Utoy Cemetery, which features the graves of two Revolutionary War soldiers and a War of 1812 veteran.
The association vice president pauses at the marker for Exie E. Cochran. “I have a love for my grandmother,” he says. She helped to raise me.”
The cemetery adjoins what once was Utoy Primitive Baptist Church, which had moved to this neighborhood in 1828, before there even was a city of Marthasville, or, as it became later known, Atlanta.
Maj. Perry Bennett grew up in Atlanta, is an Army historian with the 335th Signal Command in East Point and is president of the cemetery group. He participated in a 1972 Cub Scout cleanup.
Bennett, 50, estimates 250-300 people, possibly including slaves and Native Americans, are buried there.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans placed markers at the Confederate soldiers, including a Jewish man from Savannah.
“I’ll find stones on his headstone,” says Bennett, referring to the Jewish custom.
Col. James S. Boynton (right), 30th Georgia, was wounded and brought to Utoy Church for medical care. He later became a politician and judge and briefly served as Georgia governor.
Bennett, McDuffie and others are working to have the cemetery added to the National Register of Historic Places. In June, they’ll go for state approval, with a National Park Service designation, hopefully, to follow.
Few Utoy Church or cemetery records survive.
The church, at Venetian and Cahaba drives, closed in the 1970s or early 1980s. The building now houses Temple of Christ Pentecostal Church. It’s not far from the Army’s Fort McPherson.
Bennett opens and closes the gate to the cemetery most days and regularly gives impromptu tours to people who stop by.
The Battle of Utoy Creek occurred when Union Gen. William T. Sherman, fresh off three major victories in July 1864, against Gen. John Bell Hood, tried to complete the job of taking the vital Southern city.
Sherman extended his right flank to hit the railroad between East Point and Atlanta.
“A delay allowed the Rebels to strengthen their defenses with abatis, which slowed the Union attack when it restarted on the morning of August 6th,” according to the National Park Service summary of the fight. “The Federals were repulsed with heavy losses by Bate’s Division and failed in an attempt to break the railroad.”
The siege of Atlanta continued.
Upcoming in Picket: A deeper look at the Battle of Utoy Creek and what remains today.
• Read about Utoy Cemetery Association